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Victory by Joseph Conrad (book review and recommendation)

When it comes to book reviews, I don't do suspense- I reveal what I think about the book pretty quickly. I try to be as clear as possible about two things: what kind of book it is and how I feel about it. That seems to be the point of book reviews anyway. So, to answer the first question (what kind of book is it?): Victory is a psychological novel with elements of thriller and romance. The second answer (how I felt about it?): I loved it. That's my opinion in a nutshell. If you want to read a bit more about this book, scroll down.

This review is rather long and yet I feel like I haven't given this novel the full attention it deserves.  I suppose it is a credit to this novel- this feeling that one can't possibly fit it in one review. There are so many things I didn't even examine in this novel (the portrayal of villains for example) but I hope I managed to give you a glimpse of this wonderful and sad story. 


If  your answer is yes, do give this one a try. Seriously, if you feel like reading a complex psychological novel that will make you ponder the meaning of life, this is a book for you. Not that you will be provided with any definite answers, mind you. Victory strikes me as a rather ambiguous work, one that is (intentionally left) open to interpretations.  That's the way I like my books, so I was very pleased with this one. 

Consequently, if you like clear questions and answers, this is not a novel for you, for there is a lot to ponder in this one.If you prefer a more closed narrative, one that is all clear, one that doesn't leave any doubts- this might not be a novel for you. 

 Nevertheless, I must hurry to add the novel is not written as a meditative/philosophical essay or anything like that. Not at all. This philosophical aspect of the novel is what first comes to my mind because it is what (personally) interests me the most, but really there is the main story, sub- stories, plot and all- for some perhaps this main ‘story’ is the most important aspect of the novel. For me it is the character study, but these things are always subjective.

Joseph Conrad. One of my all time favourite authors. How objective can I be?

Still, if I were to be more objective, I would have to add that there is a romantic story within this novel. Lena, a lonely and brave girl, falls in love with the protagonist of this novel- an isolated (in more ways than one) man. Perhaps it could even be pointed that our protagonist is somewhat of a tragic hero.  On surface, it is a love story with elements of adventure. Why, you even have a typical 'damsel in distress' syndrome. Lera needs saving and our hero rises to the challenge. So, not only do we have  a young lady in love with a man who offers and gives her protection but also  a whole cast of villains to spice things up. That does sound like an adventure, doesn’t it? 


So, there is both romance and adventure in this novel. To some extent, we even have the classical heroes and villains. There is more than romance and adventure to this novel, though. Once the action picks up, Victory turns into a psychological thriller. In a way, perhaps it is possible to say there are elements of psychological thriller from the very start- but naturally this is open to interpretation. I won’t attempt to put this novel into any fixed category. However, I will say that if you go into this one expecting Conrad to weave infinite meaning into a story and show off this mastery over language, well you won’t be disappointed. If you like Conrad's writing style, you will certainly find what you like in this one. 

Victory by Joseph Conrad (book review)


Basically, many typical ‘Conrad’ elements and formulas are present in this one. In Victory you will find an impressive cast of characters, introduced and described within a complicated narrative that somehow manages to feel intimate. I always wondered how Conrad manages to do that, but now that I think of it, he’s hardly the first English author who has used a complicated narrative voice (think of Wuthering Heights) and managed to make it sound plausible. 


The complex narrative doesn't take anything away from the realism of this story. Moreover, it seems to make the whole story seem more vivid. This is a compliment to Conrad's immense writing talent. He manages to make complex writing techniques look effortless. There is a bit of danger in that, for on surface it makes his story seem a bit simple, but if one is willing to put its heart into it, one will be rewarded. The complicated narrative and somewhat distant writing style didn't stand it in the way of revealing the heart of the matter to us.  The author gambled a bit with this one, but the gamble payed off.


Conrad is a great writer, no doubt about that- and as I already said, Victory is written in his signature style. Typically for Conrad, the protagonist of the novel will face moral dilemmas and re-examine his view of the world.  When I think about Conrad's characters, I can't help but to see them as tragic heroes. For no matter what they choice, they are deemed to suffer- or so it seems. There is never a possibility of an easy escape for Conrad. Just like in his writing (in general), one finds moments of beauty in the life of his characters. Moments of sincere friendship and love. However, it is often indicated that people end up ruined precisely for their aspiration towards something greater.  A human being, according to Conrad, is a creature plagued both by its past and its future.


The setting for this novel is a tropical destination, inhabited by both locals and Europeans. Hence, there are some ‘colonial’ references. I would say that a motif of cultural and civilization clash is present, but not very prominent. It is certainly not a central point in this novel. For students of literature (or just people willing to give it some thought) , it would be interesting to explore racial implications of the characters. One might, for example, speak of the China man, the servant of our protagonist- who seems to take an active part in this novel. Moreover, tropics certainly further the feeling of isolation of the main characters. This raises questions of identity, which in turns raises questions of morality. If one complied to comply to moral standards of an European society one isn't (by virtue of moving) a substantial part of?


The ending might appear rushed, but I think it was actually carefully planned. The slow introduction is necessary because of the detailed character study. One could argue that the novel is a slow read, but it depends on how we examine it. If we're willing to allow for the fact that it is a psychological novel, then there can't be any question of it being slow. It is true that not much happens in terms of direct action until quite some time, but that doesn't mean that the novel was in any way rushed. 


I came to an opinion that the protagonist of this novel, Heyst, needs a long introduction because it is the only way we can truly understand his actions (in my opinion). Imagine if we didn't know anything about his past, well, we (readers) would probably judge him insensitive. To put it as simply as possible, it is necessary for the reader to familiarize himself with this character, but also to feel for him. Heyst is a tragic hero. A reader needs to love a hero to allow him the luxury of becoming a tragic hero. In a way, tragedy is like alchemy. Its secret ingredient is the heart of the reader. Not the intellect, but the heart.


Personally, I found Heyst absolutely fascinating. His character made perfect sense to me. As a young man, Heyst was disappointed in life. His dying father installed mistrust towards life into him, resulting with the young man somewhat autistic attitude towards life. He is content with only observing life. However, when Heyst stumbles against a desperate Portuguese man, he decides to pay his depth. A friendship is formed. A somewhat bittersweet friendship, but a friendship nevertheless.

This bounds him to his man, both in friendship and in a feeling of responsibility. For isn’t a feeling of responsibility one of the defining characteristics of friendship? This friendship is perhaps the very first connection between the reader and the protagonist because it is what makes us emphasize with Heyst and see him as a real person. What follow is a sad but memorable tale. The sadness of this novel is for most part subtle, only reaching its peak towards the end, but for me that makes it none the less profound.



It is hard to avoid this question. I have read the Note to the first edition written by Joseph Conrad himself, but I'm still not certain why this novel is called Victory. Taking in consideration the ending and the atmosphere of Shakespearean tragedy, one does wonder what the title is supposed to mean. Conrad explained it as a some kind of omen, saying that:
The last word of this novel was written on 29 May 1914. And that last word was the single word of the title. Those were the times of peace. Now that the moment of publication approaches I have been considering the discretion of altering the title-page. The word “Victory” the shining and tragic goal of noble effort, appeared too great, too august, to stand at the head of a mere novel. There was also the possibility of falling under the suspicion of commercial astuteness deceiving the public into the belief that the book had something to do with war.
Of that, however, I was not afraid very much. What influenced my decision most were the obscure promptings of that pagan residuum of awe and wonder which lurks still at the bottom of our old humanity. “Victory” was the last word I had written in peace-time. It was the last literary thought which had occurred to me before the doors of the Temple of Janus flying open with a crash shook the minds, the hearts, the consciences of men all over the world. Such coincidence could not be treated lightly. And I made up my mind to let the word stand, in the same hopeful spirit in which some simple citizen of Old Rome would have “accepted the Omen.”

 (book review)


Historical circumstances set aside, the title still made me wonder. Perhaps Conrad himself acted on an impulse when he choose it. Not that it wasn't a good impulse. Still.... Who is really victorious? I gave the matter some thought and an answer presented itself. Why, Lena! It is she, the heroine of this novel. It is she- selecting love over everything!


Previously I read several works by Joseph Conrad ( Heart of Darkness,Lord Jim , Nostromo ) but never have I met with such a powerful female protagonist. This was most refreshing. Lena's capability for love and loyalty is all the more impressive taken the circumstances of her life. This is the first novel of Conrad's that I read, featuring a female character that really takes things into her hands. Truth be told, she is the only such character in the novel. There is another female characters that shows some initiative- a woman who helps Lena. She does helps her  - not so much out of mercy for Len but  because she is terrified of her husband who tries to force himself on Lena. At least two characters are surprised by her initiative because they consider this  inn keepers wife to be a simpleton. Nobody suspects her, because they think she is dump- this could be said as a comment on how woman were often thought of in those days. What to say of Lena then? Our damsel in distress who shows to be very brave indeed.


Lena, a young woman who finds herself growing up and living in the most unhappy of circumstances, is anything but a victim. Ultimately, you could say she's the victim of life (but haven't we all) yet there is nothing about her that suggest a victim. In other Conrad's works that I read, female characters were (almost always) distant figures. Lena takes not only her own life at her hands, but she is ready to act to save the lives of others. Needless to say, I really warmed up to her. Moreover, this character is such an important part of this story. Lena offers a fascinating study not only of relationship between the opposing sexes, but between a society and an individual. Despite being an outcast of some kind, Lena has a very strong sense of morality, of herself. She is very much a defined character and an individual.



If I remember the Author’s note well, Conrad based most of his characters on actual people. He admits that he modeled many characters from Victory on real people. Furthermore, Conrad explains that he was inspired by a real woman when he was creating Lena- it was a brief but obviously memorable encounter. On one occasion, Conrad saw a young women being pinched by her (presumably) pianist mother. This cruelty inflected by one woman to another, moved him.  This is what Conrad himself said: 

One evening I wandered into a cafe, in a town not of the tropics but of the South of France. It was filled with tobacco smoke, the hum of voices, the rattling of dominoes, and the sounds of strident music. The orchestra was rather smaller than the one that performed at Schomberg’s hotel, had the air more of a family party than of an enlisted band, and, I must confess, seemed rather more respectable than the Zangiacomo musical enterprise. It was less pretentious also, more homely and familiar, so to speak, insomuch that in the intervals when all the performers left the platform one of them went amongst the marble tables collecting offerings of sous and francs in a battered tin receptacle recalling the shape of a sauceboat. It was a girl. Her detachment from her task seems to me now to have equalled or even surpassed Heyst’s aloofness from all the mental degradations to which a man’s intelligence is exposed in its way through life. Silent and wide-eyed she went from table to table with the air of a sleep-walker and with no other sound but the slight rattle of the coins to attract attention. It was long after the sea-chapter of my life had been closed but it is difficult to discard completely the characteristics of half a lifetime, and it was in something of the Jack-ashore spirit that I dropped a five-franc piece into the sauceboat; whereupon the sleep-walker turned her head to gaze at me and said “Merci, Monsieur” in a tone in which there was no gratitude but only surprise. I must have been idle indeed to take the trouble to remark on such slight evidence that the voice was very charming and when the performers resumed their seats I shifted my position slightly in order not to have that particular performer hidden from me by the little man with the beard who conducted, and who might for all I know have been her father, but whose real mission in life was to be a model for the Zangiacomo of Victory. Having got a clear line of sight I naturally (being idle) continued to look at the girl through all the second part of the programme. The shape of her dark head inclined over the violin was fascinating, and, while resting between the pieces of that interminable programme she was, in her white dress and with her brown hands reposing in her lap, the very image of dreamy innocence. The mature, bad-tempered woman at the piano might have been her mother, though there was not the slightest resemblance between them. All I am certain of in their personal relation to each other is that cruel pinch on the upper part of the arm. That I am sure I have seen! There could be no mistake. I was in too idle a mood to imagine such a gratuitous barbarity. It may have been playfulness, yet the girl jumped up as if she had been stung by a wasp. It may have been playfulness. Yet I saw plainly poor “dreamy innocence” rub gently the affected place as she filed off with the other performers down the middle aisle between the marble tables in the uproar of voices, the rattling of dominoes through a blue atmosphere of tobacco smoke. I believe that those people left the town next day.


In a similar way, the protagonist of this novel, Heyst (often called the Swede) was moved by witnessing Lena’s terror and the abuse inflected on her. I wonder how much of writer himself there is in Heyst. At any rate, their emotional reaction to the spectacle of young vulnerable lady was identical. Like the actual young woman, Lena was a performer (against her will). When the two (Heyst and Lena) meet, there is more than longing (on her part) and pity (on his part). I saw it as a meeting of kindred spirits and was honestly moved by it. 


Both of them are remarkably innocent. Perhaps their 'innocence' might seem absurd to the modern reader, but it makes sense in the context of their lives. Lena is attracted by Heyst because she senses that he is different from others- and vice versa. Aren't they clearly different from most people? First of all, they both lack emotional attachment to other people- more due to circumstances than to their own personal capacity for such emotions. They don't engage in a physical relationship, their love remains purely platonic and this adds even grater weight to it. Both of them can be seen as hurt individuals, isolated from the world by the weight of their past and present- and yet they find love. Lena retains her innocence despite of everything- and in some ways so does Heyst.


One could say that Heyst in unemotional, yet his life proves it is not really the case. His hermit life is something that needs to be examined to be understood, and it seems that Lena instinctively understands it- perhaps we could call it female intuition? Interestingly, in their relationship Lena seems to be the active party, she is the one who asks for help- in a more direct way than the Portuguese (who had prayed to God but found Heyst instead). Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say that Heyst is completely indifferent and passive. If he was, where would be the tragedy? And there is a lot of tragedy in this novel. 


As a character Heyst might appear passive but paradoxically I think he is a man of strong will. It is just that his will was directed towards renouncing the world and now he finds it difficult to find his place in this world. For all the good that exists in his heart and perhaps precisely because of it, Heyst is unable to truly become a part of this world. The author put it like this:
...It is only when the catastrophe matches the natural obscurity of our fate that even the best representative of the race is liable to lose his detachment. It is very obvious that on the arrival of the gentlemanly Mr. Jones, the single-minded Ricardo, and the faithful Pedro, Heyst, the man of universal detachment, loses his mental self-possession, that fine attitude before the universally irremediable which wears the name of stoicism. It is all a matter of proportion. There should have been a remedy for that sort of thing. And yet there is no remedy. Behind this minute instance of life’s hazards Heyst sees the power of blind destiny. Besides, Heyst in his fine detachment had lost the habit of asserting himself. I don’t mean the courage of self-assertion, either moral or physical, but the mere way of it, the trick of the thing, the readiness of mind and the turn of the hand that come without reflection and lead the man to excellence in life, in art, in crime, in virtue, and, for the matter of that, even in love. Thinking is the great enemy of perfection. The habit of profound reflection, I am compelled to say, is the most pernicious of all the habits formed by the civilized man.



I do recommend Victory, especially if you're a fan of Joseph Conrad. There are many complex messages and questions hidden beneath its touching love story and adventurous plot. There is much more than meets the eye in this one. At its core I would say that Victory is a profoundly sad novel with elements of pessimism but somehow it is also a novel that carries a message of hope. You will have to wait patiently to get to the action part of the book (the second half of the novel) and even longer for everything to unfold (the last few pages are the defining one in terms of characters' destinies). Nevertheless, as readers you will be rewarded for your patience, for this novel is not only beautifully written, but written with great mastery, care and thought.

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